Friday, April 8, 2011
Chinatown and Memory
I’ve been in San Francisco most of this week, attending a conference. I've been to the city six or seven times, and every I go, I eat a dinner at Kan’s Chinese Restaurant on Grant Street, right in the heart of Chinatown.
The food is good, but that’s not why I eat there. I’m okay with Chinese food, but I’m not a major fan.
The area is steeped in history, but that’s not why I eat there, either. Most of that history is gone, hidden behind storefronts for cheap touristy things (“Good quality t-shirts for $1.99!”).
I eat there because the first time I ate there, somewhere back in the 1980s, I ate dinner with a good friend. We knew each other through the work we did – we were both in communications, but in different parts of the country. We'd met a conference years before, and with a couple of other people had talked late one evening (or early the next morning) about communications, employers and journalists – the things PR people usually talk about.
Later, we were both in San Francisco for a communications convention, he because he was a big wheel in the association and me to pick up an award for speechwriting. He'd been born and raised in Detroit but had lived a long time in Oakland before moving back east, and he knew the family that had owned Kan’s for generations, back in the days of the real Chinatown and Dashiell Hammett and the Pinkerton Detective Agency and the tong wars and all that stuff that makes up the legend of the place.
That first time we met, he told me something that rather startled me. “If you’re going to be a speechwriter,” he said, “you might as well be a great speechwriter. And if you’re going to be a great speechwriter, you better get real familiar with the poets.” And by “the poets” he meant three of the moderns – T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas and Wallace Stevens. He was so adamant about it that over a period of about a year he sent me a volume of the complete poems of each of the three.
I read them. I knew he liked Dylan Thomas the best. I liked Eliot, but I really liked Wallace Stevens. And from those three I started reading more.
He taught me something else: don’t settle for mediocrity. Take the risk. Do it. Strive for something great. I’d come up with something I thought innovative, and he’d say “Exactly!” because he had already done it. Eventually, he stopped saying “Exactly!” He started saying “Wow!” And he meant it.
We lived in different cities; we worked for different employers. Long months would pass before we might talk again, but we’d pick up right where we left off. I knew he was essentially a lonely person, filling his life with work and the association he loved so deeply.
Then, in the late 1990s, he told me he had gone to Brazil for a business trip, got sick and nearly died, spending months in the hospital from some major tropical assault on his immune system. But he recovered, even though he looked thin and wan the next time I saw him.
About a decade ago, I was reading a communications magazine, and I turned a page and found his obituary. I didn’t know, but then there wouldn’t have been anyone to tell me. The obituary was rather cryptic. And then I understood. But it didn't matter. He was my friend.
So on Monday night I was in Kan’s, with its clientele of tourists, locals who like Chinese food, a scattering of business people, several families, some students and a couple of construction workers. You have to walk up a flight of stairs from the street; it sits above what used to be a Chinese souvenir store but is now the Floating Sushi Boat Restaurant. Behind the hostess’ counter are autographed pictures of Kenny Rogers and Sandra Bullock. The main dining room has a 16-foot ceiling and nine crystal chandeliers. Red and white tablecloths alternate on the tables. Lots of Chinese artifacts decorate the walls.
I wasn’t there for the food or the atmosphere; I was there out of memory for my friend. I miss his acerbic wit, his passion for communications, his impatience with mediocrity, and his love for poetry.
I sat there at Kan’s, and could still hear him reciting lines from Dylan Thomas.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light…